Damon Johnson has sat down on many occasions with eonmusic. In the past covering such topics as sharing the stage with members of Thin Lizzy and Aerosmith, and of course the continuing success of Black Star Riders, this time we thought we’d discuss another subject very close to his heart; guitars. We caught up with the Alabama native at Ramblin’ Man Fair, to discuss the evolution of his playing, as well as finding out some of his favourite Thin Lizzy moments. Someday salvation; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Damon, how are you today?
Brilliant, man, I love this Ramblin’ Man festival. I’ve did it two years in a row, and it’s an amazing slot for us this year. There’s a lot of attention on Black Star Riders, and we’re very, very grateful, man. Without a doubt, the UK is our heart and soul. It’s our favourite place to play, it’s our most passionate fans, and they’re doing a great job about spreading the word about us, learning the songs, and coming to the shows. I wish we could just play here six months out of the year!
Your slot here today sees you playing just ahead of headliners Extreme; is there a little more pressure on you as such?
No, I think, honestly brother, I just look at it as a clear indication of what we’ve accomplished with the fans. We haven’t done it on our own; without a doubt, they’re the ones that have made it happen. Ricky [Warwick, Black Star Riders front man] has always been very eloquent and outspoken at every show about expressing our gratitude to the fans, none more so than the UK, and I just think today is almost like a celebration for us, it really and truly is.
You’ve had a really busy year since the release of ‘Heavy Fire’ back in February.
We had a really big tour back in March that went very, very well, and we’ve been scattered all over Europe this summer, playing a variety of festivals; some are metal fests, some are classic rock, some are pop festivals, its’s wild, man! I mean, we’ve played a little bit of everything, so this is sort of the cherry on top for us. We’re really, really happy to be here today, and looking forward to the show.
The band has just announced another UK tour for November [see dates below].
Yeah, man, what a great package. We’re so pleased to have those specific bands on the ticket. Once again, it’s going to be a great night for our fans, similar to March; that was a great package as well. It’s an amazing place for us to find ourselves, to put these tours together, and have conversations with our team, with the agent, with management, with the label, and go; “Hey, we’d like to do maybe another two weeks in the UK, and we want to make it special”.
There’s no Irish dates this time around.
Yeah, man, it’s impossible to play everywhere. I can guarantee you there were probably attempts to come back to Ireland on this run and the dates just weren’t available; we just couldn’t make the routing work and the schedule work. So, I don’t envy our booking agent, or management; it’s a tall task.
I wanted to talk to you about your evolution as a guitar player; from Brother Cane, right up to the present day; has your style had to adapt over the years?
You know what’s really wild – and thank you for that question, that’s a great question – I’ve been playing Les Pauls and Marshalls, essentially, my whole life. There have been minimal situations where I spent any significant time and needed to change my sound, or needed a different approach. The one exception that pops into my head was in 2007, when I was part of a band called Whiskey Falls, which was more of a country band. I was on a Telecaster a lot, and I was playing more class A amps. I had a really great [Vox] AC-30, a Fender Deville, and I was using different sounds; single coil [pick up]s. But, you know, I still always had the Tube Screamer on the pedal board to give me some hair!
So your sound too has also changed over time?
For the most part, man - even back in Brother Cane, and it’s really one of the reasons that this year, I have transitioned back to Marshall amps. That’s been one change in my sound this year. I had an old early 70s’ Marshall that had been modified, and that was kind of the secret of my sound. All throughout Brother Cane I recorded with that amp; I toured with that amp, with a Les Paul, most of the time. Then I played with John Waite for a little while in the early 2000s, and he loved that with the Les Paul. We were playing those Babys’ songs, and his solo stuff, and I could still stick to that. Alice Cooper, the same thing.
With Alice Cooper, was it difficult to decide who would play what solos?
We always did a pretty good job of dividing that up. When I was playing with Keri Kelli, or Ryan Roxie, we always did a pretty good job of splitting it up. Alice left it up to us to decide what to play, he was never precious about that stuff; he never said; “I want you to play this, and you can play that”. He kind of left it up to us to figure it out.
What was your audition like for Alice’s band?
I got the call to audition for Alice Cooper because a friend of mine was in Alice’s band, a friend from Alabama; his name is Eric Dover. Eric was getting ready to move on from Alice and focus on his solo stuff, and he told Alice; “Listen, I have the guy – this is the guy you need”. So, they auditioned five or six people, and I flew out for the audition. I really had no expectations.
How did it go?
The guys in the band were really cool with me coming in as the new guy. I know they were impressed that I was so prepared; I had taken the live recording Eric sent me, and I had it down; I had it down! I had detained notes, and I was singing background vocals and all that, and I don’t think they were expecting that.
Did you learn the Alice Cooper solos that were recorded on the albums, or was it a little more free flowing?
That’s another great question, because I have a unique answer. Eric sent me, what was essentially a live board tape with his guitar parts turned up in the mix, so I could hear when he was playing rhythm, and I could hear when he was soloing. A lot of the stuff, Eric stuck to the original versions from the studio versions, but on several songs, he improvised. It wasn’t until I joined the band and had really been in it for a couple of years that I started going back, and making some choices on my own of; “Oh, that’s really cool what Glen Buxton played right here, or what Bob Ezrin had the guys work up in this section”.
When you joined Thin Lizzy, was there more pressure on learning the solos note for note?
Yeah, and as you and I have discussed, I’m such a lifelong fan of Thin Lizzy, that if I go to see Thin Lizzy live - no matter who’s on guitar - I want to hear those solos, because I’m so passionate about listening to those records. Anybody that loves Thin Lizzy like you and I do, knows that those guitar solo were as important as the lyrics in a lot of cases.
You had a lot of different players to take in, learning the Thin Lizzy material.
All of the guys, for the most part, were very melodic themselves; specifically Scott [Gorham]. Brian Robertson was fiery, Gary [Moore] was fiery on the ‘Black Rose’ album, Snowy [White] was a great player; really good note choice, not flashy, none of that stuff. So, it was really rewarding for me, once I had been in Thin Lizzy for a number of years, I started meeting the fans and just have them come up to me, and essentially, thank me, and say; “Thank you for staying true to what Brian played on ‘Live And Dangerous’” – ‘Still In Love With You’ comes to mind, ‘Black Rose’ – there is no way I would dream of playing another note in ‘Black Rose’ than what Gary played; Man, that’s the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of guitar!
What is your favourite Thin Lizzy solo?
Well, I have specific answers to that. My favourite Scott Gorham solo is on the ‘Bad Reputation’ album; a song called ‘Downtown Sundown’. It’s a definite deep cut, but I can play that solo right now, note for note. Another great Scott solo is ‘Romeo And The Lonely Girl’, off of the ‘Jailbreak’ album – it’s killer! And he doubled it, you can tell that he basically double tracked himself. It’s just a solo you can sing. For Robbo, it would have to without a doubt be ‘Still In Love With You’, from ‘Live And Dangerous’. The thing about Robbo, he rarely played the same thing twice. He was very, very much improvising in the moment.
Have you met Brian Robertson yet?
I’ve not met Robbo. We’ve got some mutual friends, and he has said some incredible things about me that I very, very appreciate.
Finally, you’ve got a live solo album coming out shortly, following on from the ‘Echo’ EP.
Yeah, the EP was just so hugely successful, I figured I’d just put it out as a live record! *Laughing* No, I’m excited about the set list; it’s twenty-two songs, and it covers my whole career. There’s some new stuff, some Brother Cane stuff, some Lizzy surprises that I’ve covered, I do a Black Star Riders’ song, and it’s going to have an Alice Cooper medley on it, and that will be all you’re going to want to talk about the next time I see you. It’s all done. It’s literally getting mastered this week.
Where was the album recorded?
It was in my hometown, in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a show I played last year. It was a really special night, and I got a great band of friends together. We all live in Nashville, so it makes it so easy; we can rehearse together, we can go to dinner together, we can see each other during the week. I’m really, as they say, blessed to have such talent; they love the catalogue and they love to play all the songs. It’s fuckin’ bad ass man, and I can’t wait for you to hear it.
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For the latest updates on his forthcoming live album, and for all things Damon, visit damonjohnson.com.
Black Stat Riders’ ‘Comin Under Heavy Fire’ UK 2017 Dates with Blues Pills, Tax The Heat and Dirty Thrills:
Wed 8th Nov - Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton
Thurs 9th Nov - Queens Hall, Edinburgh
Fri 10th Nov - Parr Hall, Warrington
Sat 11th Nov - Hard Rock Hell, North Wales
Sun 12th Nov - University Of Hull, Hull
Tues 14th Nov - Empire, Middlesbrough
Wed 15th Nov - o2 Academy, Sheffield
Thurs 16th Nov - o2 Academy, Leicester
Sat 18th Nov - Cambridge Junction, Cambridge
Sun 19th Nov - Pyramids, Portsmouth